The fearless champion of tolerant Orthodoxy
A tribute to UK Sephardi leader, Rabbi Abraham Levy, who retires this month
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When an Israeli friend visited the Sephardi Synagogue in Lauderdale Road, she was shocked. “We were brought up viewing the Sephardim as the down- trodden, second-class citizens of Israel,” she said, “but here were Sephardim elegantly dressed in top hats, holding decorous services accompanied by a melodious choir. These were Sephardi aristocrats, something I never dreamed possible.”
The magnificent services of London’s Spanish and Portuguese Jews Congregation owe much to the leadership of Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy, a stickler for ensuring beauty and dignity in the service of God, but also a unique community leader.
I first came under his spell when I was six years old. He taught a class about the importance of reciting blessings. Developing his theme of appreciating what we have, he opened a discussion about poverty in the developing world, our obligation to thank God for what we have and to help those in need. I was captivated. Never before or since have had I heard such a powerful, relevant religious message. It haunts me to this day.
At the heart of his educational philosophy lies a commitment to promoting love of Judaism. Echoing Rashi’s commentary on the Shema, he argues, “There is no point in drilling young people with scholarship, if the moment they achieve independence, they flee from their religion.” So his teaching was always lively, non-coercive and encouraging.
Decades before other mainstream synagogue organisations created summer schemes, Rabbi Levy introduced “Jewish days”, offering a mixture of holiday education and fun. When he saw that these classes were not delivering everything he hoped for, he successfully established the Naima Jewish Preparatory School, creating a gateway for hundreds of Jewish children, many of whom would not otherwise have attended Jewish schools to achieve excellence in secular and religious studies.
While in many communities teenagers drop out of synagogue after their bar/batmitzvahs, Rabbi Levy was adamant that we would maintain our connection to the synagogue and ongoing Jewish learning. He and his wife Estelle regularly invited us to their home to discuss our religious ideas. “I am unshockable,” he would insist, encouraging us to share whatever was on our minds. It did not matter how religious or secular you were: “A good Jew is someone trying be a better Jew,” he would say, inspiring each of us to commit ourselves to one more act of religious observance.
What makes his approach so rare is that whereas many rabbis only teach the minutiae of the commandments, with Rabbi Levy, God takes centre stage. In class after class, he would ask us about our faith, challenging us to think more deeply about it. He once lamented that “when candidates for conversion appear before the rabbinic courts in Israel, the most religious scholars quiz them on the details of Jewish law, but they never think to ask whether these people believe in God”.
For Rabbi Levy, bringing people close to God meant reaching out to the community, offering pastoral care to those in need and opening the Young Jewish Leadership Institute, the very first full-scale adult education programme in a British synagogue. It was taught by some of the most brilliant emerging scholars who included the young Rabbi Irving Jacobs, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Professor Stefan Reif. It led many adults, including my parents, to move house so as to live within walking distance of the synagogue.
Meanwhile, many of their children were also inspired to become more observant. A large number studied for a year or more in yeshivah, with many of us drawing inspiration from Rabbi Levy’s career to graduate as rabbis.
Rabbi Levy’s confidence in his own beliefs makes him a fearless champion of tolerant, traditional Judaism.
When most Orthodox rabbis shunned Limmud conferences, fearing that attendance might compromise their Orthodox credentials, he recognised an important forum to teach Torah and this was enough to persuade him to attend.
In contrast to the usually impenetrable dividing lines between Jewish religious movements in Britain Rabbi Levy said: “We Sephardim believe in loyalty to Torah, and we do not believe in dividing the Jewish people”. His warmth, deep faith and charm enabled him to gather the rabbis of the ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox and Progressive movements for a religious service marking 350 years since the return of the Jews to Britain. That service was conducted by the Sephardi rabbis at Bevis Marks Synagogue in the presence of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Indeed, it is common to find up to three Reform rabbis praying in the ladies’ gallery of Lauderdale Road, a strictly Orthodox synagogue where every Jew is welcome.
His retirement after 32 years as spiritual head of his community will leave a huge gap in British Jewry and his synagogue will be hard pressed to find a worthy successor. But he has laboured to ensure his legacy. Seven years ago, he established the Montefiore Kollel to forge a generation of rabbis and dayanim who have the Torah knowledge and worldliness to spread sophisticated, spiritual and compassionate modern Orthodoxy throughout the Jewish world.